Our choices for getting to Cuenca are: a very inexpensive 10 hour bus versus a $100 one hour flight. Guess how we get here?
It is a bit of a brutal morning as the flight is at 0700 and the airport is 40 minutes from our hotel and we have to figure out where to store the extra bag we have purchased to hold the handicrafts we have bought as we don’t want to drag it around for the next 10 days. Oh, the drudgery of travel! Are you feeling sufficiently sorry for us? If not, then let me mention that the Swedish massage I had the day before left my upper back a bit tender. Boohoo!
Our original plan for Ecuador had been to rent a car, but once we got here and saw the style of driving and the narrow streets, and read a few web forums strongly advising against such folly, we decide to forego the self-drive option and do a combination of flights and buses. This part of the trip was not planned ahead and we are making it up as we go along.
Cuenca looks like a place we will want to stay for more than a few days. It is a small city of just 500,000 inhabitants, sitting in the Andes highlands at 8,000 ft, with a well preserved colonial centre that is another UNESCO world heritage site. It is said to be the most European city in Ecuador, owing to the significant number of 16th and 17th century buildings, the coffee culture on the streets, and lively night life (although this morning’s 4:30 wake-up call might preclude too much carousing our first night here!).
Cuenca is short for Santa Ana del los quatro rios de Cuenca, Saint Ann of the four rivers of Cuenca. Our hotel, the Victoria, is located on one of the four rivers and our room overlooks a lovely riverside garden. At just $80/night it is another bargain in a country that is quite inexpensive for travellers. Our cheapest meal was a few nights ago in Quito, where we had Mexican food and a litre of pilsner for $11. Amaaaaaazing!
We start our tour of Cuenca with the open-top bus. I lose track of the number of churches, cathedrals and monasteries. Also a lot of lovely plazas. Greenery and flowers too. The jacaranda are blooming purple and the hibiscus are every colour of the rainbow. Lots of geraniums in pots on balconies. A very pretty city!
And where, I wonder, is all the garbage? The city is spotlessly clean and tidy. A bit freakish for this part of the world, although Quito was also fairly clean and Ecuador in general seems to deal with its garbage much better than its neighbours to the south.
But it is also less ethnic, at least as far as the women’s attire goes. Bolivia was the most traditional, Peru next and Ecuador the least. However the older women do dress in a more traditional style than the men and younger women. Old fashioned skirts and sweaters are the norm and usually a hat of some kind, some quite stylish.
A visit to a museum/factory/showroom/shop that produces “panama” hats is enlightening. Apparently the originals are all made in Ecuador, not Panama, and got their names because they were worn by workers who built the Panama canal. There are many knock-offs, but only the one factory – the Homero Ortega – here in Cuenca makes the real deal. The history of hat making in Ecuador dates back to the 16th century, however when Theodore Roosevelt visited the Panama canal construction zone in 1904 and was photographed wearing one, they became a trend in North America. We try a few on and they do look great. But getting them home undamaged seems a daunting task. We’ll stick with our tattered ball caps for now.
Shopping in Cuenca is proving to be a bit of a bust. Expecting art galleries and craft shops, we scour the streets, but find very little. In fact, our hotel seems to have the best collection of art in the city. And some of the graffiti on the buildings is pretty good art.
We spend our last day here at Banos, a small town southwest of Cuenca, where agues calientes – thermal waters – are captured in pools in several spas. We go to the Agua de Piedra. It literally means “water stone” but I’m sure something is lost in translation. We have massages and lunch and relax in the various pools. Lydia, the masseuse, is smaller than me, with tiny hands, but after the first five minutes I am wishing I had ticked the box that said medio (medium) rather than the one that said fuerte (strong). She does a few things to my neck that seem both unnatural and dangerous.
The next day is a travel day: a short flight to Guayaquil, then a taxi and bus up the coast to Puerto Lopez, a small fishing village on the Pacific Ocean, with gorgeous beaches. After six weeks of travel we need a beach vacation?!?!?